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UT Institute could fuel drug research

December 16, 2005 By Jenny Robertson; Austin Business Journal Staff

But for a set of lucky coincidences, University of Texas researcher Brent Iverson says the anthrax antitoxin he helped develop might never have found a home with a company that could turn it into a successful medicine.
The antitoxin might one day help treat the lethal disease without antibiotics, which some fear could prove ineffective against anthrax strains deliberately manipulated by terrorists. But like many other discoveries, the antitoxin faced a challenge in jumping from the lab to a company that could develop its potential, Iverson says.
A new UT institute hopes to take more of the uncertainty out of that process.
The Texas Institute for Drug and Diagnostic Development, known as TI-3D, will collaborate with university researchers, medical personnel and drug companies to speed up pharmaceutical development. Iverson, one of the center’s five founders, says could help UT rake in more money from its intellectual property, while at the same time giving drug companies a surer bet on the discoveries they choose to develop.
The institute stands to help Central Texas in its quest to become a biotech hub. While Austin isn’t cited as a hot spot among many national biotech insiders, university officials say the center could add 500 jobs in the region in just five years.
Iverson serves as interim director of the institute, which university administrators approved earlier this fall. In the next six to nine months, he hopes to hire a permanent director and have the program fully operating.
The institute will include researchers from across the university, including biologists, chemists, engineers and pharmacists. Initially, they will team up with faculty at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Representatives of drug companies will come on board in a later phase.
In October, the institute announced it had received a $3.5 million grant from the Houston-based Welch Foundation, a nonprofit that finances chemical research. Iverson hopes for similar success with government and foundation funding, and UT administrators have promised an undisclosed amount of financial support.
Many university researchers must sell their discoveries at a fairly early point in the development process, as they lack the equipment that larger companies possess for extensive testing needed in later phases. The result: lower financial returns for the universities from companies that see the discoveries as unproven and, thus, riskier.
But by collaborating with a multitude of researchers, Iverson says, UT can buy the equipment needed for more in-depth tests, such as animal trials. That would allow the university to hold on to its intellectual property longer — eventually selling a more validated product at a much higher price.
Plus, Iverson says, drug companies will have input throughout the process. Scientists will think about a discovery’s marketability while it’s still in development.
Iverson says the concept has the potential to bring millions of dollars to UT — hundreds of millions, if researchers hit on a drug with high demand.

Austin Business Journal; December 16, 2005

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